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153 of 172 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2008
Book Review: "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Rights Even When You're Not" by Robert A. Burton, M.D.

In my theistic discussions; I am often fascinated (stymied) at the level of certainty that some theists have in the validity of their religious narrative...often in the face of clear contradictory empirical evidence. Over the years, I have taken a keen interest in neurology and how the brain works; enough so that I have a passing regret for not having gone into neurology instead of engineering (it's never too late, right?). Over these years, I have amassed a mental library of various illustrations that show how malleable and unreliable the mind (as manifested in the brain) can be. Still; the inexplicable certainty that some possess was never addressed directly in my readings. Hence, when I saw a brief blurb about the book "On Being Certain", I immediately went and bought a copy (my library had ordered it, but they did not yet have it ready for lending).

Dr. Burton's sole focus of "On Being Certain" is that sense of certainty that we all recognize. He provides evidence that the feeling (or `emotion' more accurately) is a `primary emotion' and refers to it as the "feeling of knowing" (he did not shorten it to an acronym, I think, because of the obvious, awkward acronym that would result).

Burton cites the rapidly accumulating knowledge that we have with regard to brain function and perception to good end. The less diligent reader, though, might not find the reading deeply satisfying as we cannot, based on our current knowledge, fully answer specific questions (i.e. why do we create gods to address the unknown). Still, the empirical evidence cited is often clearly in conflict with some common presumptions. This, in my mind, is the true purpose of the empirical method. While we may be unable to answer a specific, granular question on a topic, we can effectively eliminate the wrong answers...and Burton's book does go a long way in eliminating some of those wrong answers (at least for those open to empirical evidence).

One interesting point Burton makes is there are some emotions that we can induce through direct electrical stimulation of very specific regions of the brain. One example is the "sense of another presence" (i.e. that there is someone or something nearby). Another example is the disruption/manipulation of the "sense of self" where we can feel separate from our bodies (floating) or feel "at one" with our surroundings. The point of his book, of course, is that "feeling of knowing" which can be elicited through electrical stimulation. Burton calls these "primary emotions" and are localized to very specific areas of the brain. On the other hand, we have no evidence of being able to similarly induce higher order emotions such as the "sense of irony". Burton effectively demonstrates how these primary emotions (particularly the "feeling of knowing") do not necessarily reliably correlate with facts or reality.

Reading the book, while mentally critiquing it, is a bit of a mobius-like conundrum. You are simultaneously judging and amassing knowledge, while you are reading about how your judgment and knowledge is not reliable. WHEW! I will confess; I feel that Burton, on one or two occasions, overstepped the implications of bits of evidence. In his defense, the book was written for a more general audience and some background that might have been omitted might justify his positions. In all, the book offers some fascinating insights as to how our brains and minds work and an astute reader can learn much from it.
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42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2008
We are challenged by certainty our own and that of others which are often in turbulent conflict across many fields. It is difficult to understand how we as individuals and as groups can feel so deeply certain and so differently about a given issue. Here is a book that reviews such matters in modern terms both from a personal and from a professional neuroscience perspective, showing how and why our convictions are neurologically our own. He does so be citing examples from clinical practice, but without overloading the reader with difficult technical terms. At the same time, interesting examples and personal experiences both broaden and enlighten the presentation. His motivation to address the topic is never hidden. His message is that even with the best of scientific proof we can never be as certain as we commonly think (and feel) we are. What we do not know (or have not yet dreamed of) vastly exceeds what we know. The small voice of skepticism should always be in our ear. It is more than an admonition, it is a necessity. Those who liked the books by Oliver Sacks will like this book.
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178 of 204 people found the following review helpful
I am always slightly annoyed when a book is not about what is is supposed to be about. A few chapters of this book - those towards the end - are on why the feeling of certainty is just that: a feeling. This leads the author to some interesting discussions about how the 'feeling of certianty (a feeling though it is) is something that tends not to be subject to reason, but owes more to emotion. The author also goes into some really interesting thoughts about evolutionary reasons why the feeling of certainty as a tool to help us survive in an uncertain world (where we have to act, so we might as well act with conviction).

Unfortunately, this only happens well into the second half of the book (maybe 2/3rds of the way through). The first many chapters are stage setters. There are chapters about distinguishing what is meant by "mental states," "feeling" and "sensation," chapters describing how we know that emotions like fear, deja vu, and religious experience are chemical in nature, and how the "mind" is an emergent property tying together several components of the brain into a unity.

The author also spends quite a bit of time talking about what neuroscientists term the "hidden layer." That is, when we make decisions, the brain "surveys" a whole host of things - past experiences, attitudes one has acquired, things one has learned, etc. - to come to a conclusion, but this is all "hidden" form our consciousness. Thus, the author concludes that while we may feel like our deliberations are conscious, often the bulk of our deliberation is unconscious.

All of this, the author tells us, supports the thesis (that he eventually gets to) suggesting that certainty is a feeling,, and not always one subject to rationality as we generally assume. Since we have seen that attitudes like fear, deja vu, and sense of purpose are feelings like any other, and we have seen that feelings like these are often not subject to rationality (try convincing a clinically depressed person that the feeling of purposelessness is only a chemical "illusion"), and we know that much of our thought is unconcious, we can also infer that the feeling of certianty is subject to all of these. (Try convincing a young-earth creationist that the earth is more than 6,000 years old and that their certainty is not due to the strength of the idea.)

Really, I don't have any huge qualms with this. We've all seen people be so certain of something that is (to us) obviously wrong, and know all to well that people's attachment to ideas often has not a thing to do with rationality. (And we all, if we are honest, realize that we have been the 'dummy' in this scenario as well.)

My biggest problem, from a literary standpoit, is that the author takes a very long time to get to his point, beginning many chapters with something like: "I want to talk about the feeling of certainty. But first, let's..." Once that happens too many times, I begin to lose patience, particularly when some chapters (like that reviewing the difference between "feelings" and "sensations") simply go on longer than they should.

My philosophical beefs with the book is: the author, who suggests may times that we cannot step beyond our feelings of certainty if they are strong enough, would be well served to have included a chapter on examples where people DO change their minds about things they were once deeply certain about. The fact that this happens - albeit happens only with difficulty and pain - gives empirical lie to this thesis.

Really, this is a quite interesting book with an interesting case that simply takes the author too many pages to make. I resisted the urge to skip ahead numerous times (and did skip half a chapter that seemed to veer frequently off topic). I wish the author would have discussed the issue of 'certainty' more than the tertiarilly related matter of brain states like fear and deja vu.

In the end, I would reccomend this book to people as a follow-up read to books like "Mistakes Were Made," which give a much more direct discussion of our brain's tendency to fall into illusions of certainty. This book does that, but simply tries to do so much more that it may better have been written as a collection of loosely related essays.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
As an avid reader of authors such as Stephen Pinker (How the Mind Works), Malcolm Gladwell (Blink), Richard Restak (The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own) and Timothy Wilson (Strangers to Ourselves), I found Burton's book On Being Certain a riveting read. Trying to understand how the mind works feels to me as if we are putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle, knowing that we only have 20 or 30% of the pieces. On Being Certain provides a key piece that for me shifted all the others into a more meaningful pattern.

Burton argues eloquently for the power that the feeling of certainty that we are right has over us. I agree; and also find that this book triggered the reverse in me: a sense of uncertainty,the feeling that I'm not sure what I believe about some of the issues Burton raises. And that can be an exhilarating experience as well. As one wit said, "Being certain is nice, but it's doubt that gets you an education."

Burton uses very creative analogies, practical examples, and reader-friendly illustrations to convey the intricacies of what he is describing, and he links what might otherwise seem to be esoteric issues to questions about self and the meaning of life that have haunted humantity for eons. I thought this was a super book.
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106 of 131 people found the following review helpful
on June 7, 2008
In the initial chapters of this book, Robert Burton explains that knowing is primarily a feeling; a feeling that something is certain even if we have evidence to the contrary. He then proceeds to briefly discuss artificial neural networks, used later to construct the metaphor of "the hidden layer," which, he goes on to claim, is "the interface between incoming sensory data and a final perception..." This may well be true, but he doesn't provide adequate evidence in support. Basically what he says is that thinking and emotions are in certain ways a unitary structure which is heavily influenced by genetics, which sounds right, but then he concludes that humans' world views are determined by their genes and the peculiarity of their neural machinery. He has not provided a warrant for this claim. It is true that the Platonic/Cartesian rationalist view of human nature is no longer tenable, but to say that human beings are not pure rational minds is not to say that it is not possible for human beings to use reason to critically evaluate experience.
The title of chapter 12 (The Twin Pillars of Certainty: Reason and Objectivity) contains an unwarranted assumption, namely that reason and objectivity are what the feeling of certainty is based on. It seems to me that the more reasonable and objective people are, the less certain they are. Burton seems to castigate scientists for believing in certainly, but his evidence consists of a few anecdotes. Isn't he attacking a straw man? Science does not talk about certainty but about degrees of probability based on available evidence. The strangest chapter is number 13, where Burton attacks Richard Dawkins for "believing in the myth of the autonomous rational mind," and Daniel Dennett for insisting that the secular and scientific view of the world ought to be accepted by everyone. "Try telling a poet to give up his musings and become a mechanical engineer, says Burton, in an either-or fallacious attempt to convince us that someone cannot be a poet and accept a scientific view of the world. Even the Dalai Lama tries to have a scientific view of things.
There are interesting ideas in the first eleven chapters of this book, it is unfortunate that the author did not expand on them, did not provide more elucidation and data, but chose instead to attack Dawkins, Dennett and science itself.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
I was certain that I wouldn't read much in this book that I couldn't find in other books. I was wrong. I have read several books in this area and found much in Dr. Burton's book that is not in others. Here is what I mean (there is also an irony to it): In chapter 5, Neural Networks, Dr. Burton explains how computer software programs have a "hidden layer" that essentially allows them to "learn" what your preferences are, which allows the software program to provide recommendations - the case in point is Amazon. I found this to be ironic because I came upon this book because of the recommendations that Amazon has made to me - so I bought it. What's more, this book is not like other books that Amazon "groups" Dr. Burton's book with. I have read many of the books that are recommended along with On Being Certain: Predictably Irrational, Sway, The Drunkard's Walk, Why We Make Mistakes, How We Decide, and Gut Feelings. I can say that it is most like How We Decide, only better.

Here is, I think, a better representation of what this book covers by way of other books that cover that area. The Life of the Cosmos,Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect: How We Make Decisions,Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are,A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers,Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will,Philosophy of Mind, Revised Edition: A Beginner's Guide (Oneworld Beginners' Guides),Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (Philosophy of the Mind),The Conscious Brain: Facts and Consequences,Complexity: A Guided Tour and The Ego Tunnel. Dr. Burton mentions a little about many topics: Philosophy of Mind, Free Will, Neural Networks, Decision Making, Intuition and Gut Feelings, Consciousness and the Self.

In short, Dr. Burton has done a great job of pulling together diverse topics that support his main point: "The revolutionary premise at the heart of this book is: Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of "knowing what we know" arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason." I enjoyed the book, thought it was very well constructed and would highly recommend it to anyone.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2009
There are many books on topics that seem similar to this one - Blink being the best-known. The difference with Burton is that he's a medical doctor and he approaches things like a medical doctor would. He provides clinical reviews and not just anecdotes. The bigger point he's making, that there is probably a biological underpinning to the feeling that you know something to be true that runs parallel to the part of the brain that underlies the actual knowledge of the fact, would explain a lot of the behavior patterns we see in people. To Burton you can try to convince people they are wrong but that doesn't make them change their minds because you haven't caused them to change the part of the brain that's wired to think the other beliefs are true, and that part of the brain is difficult to change.

Burton doesn't use this example but I will: think of Saul on the road to Damascus. Why did he change his position as to the truth of the gospels? Not because he learned new facts, but because he found he no longer believed the old conclusions from the old facts to be true, and he drew new conclusions from the old facts. Most people don't change their minds just by learning new facts, they change their minds by realizing that the facts they know (whether combined with new ones or not) no longer feel true. Burton provides a compelling explanation for this phenomenon

So I guess what I'm saying is "I like this book because what it says feels like it's true." But saying that demonstrates the whole point of the book...
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34 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on February 28, 2008
I must admit that for the first third of this book I had no idea where the author was going and suspected he shared my problem. I'm glad I persisted. The author makes a strong case for the emotional nature of certainty. Certainty is a red flag, telling us that we are thinking with our limbic systems rather than with our frontal lobes. Of course it's up to us to decide whether or not to heed this warning. Read the book; it does not disappoint.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
I rarely chime in after 28 reviews, but in this case no other reviewer has touched on what I found to be the best part of the book.

I expected a book on why people act as if they're certain, or more generally, why people exhibit overconfidence. Dr. Burton's interest is different, and more subtle.

The book starts with results from neuropsychology and psychology demonstrating that the degree of certainty people attach to thoughts originates with or before the conscious thought, and is very difficult to change afterwards even with overwhelming empirical evidence. In fact, people will admit the truth of the evidence, but still cling to their inconsistent belief.

He makes the illuminating comparison to sense impressions. We believe our eyes, what we can touch is real. We know about hallucinations, optical illusions and other perceptual inaccuracies; but it's difficult to navigate the world while requiring independent empirical confirmation of sensory data. Even if we later reject the impression, it remains real in some sense; a place we have been only in dreams may have more reality to us than an objectively real place we have never been to or thought about. Not all sense data comes with full certainty, it's possible to be unsure whether you saw something, whether a startling noise was real or not, whether a vague shape in the distance is an object or not. We have a "midlayer" in our brain between sensory inputs and conscious output that filters and organizes data, sometimes making it erroneous, and also attaches a certainty indicator before we become aware of it.

Dr. Burton argues from parsimony that this same midlayer uses the same mechanism for thoughts other than direct perception: memories, ideas, evaluations and so on. We don't just remember someone's name, we dredge it up from long-term memory with a degree of certainty attached. Although this sounds obvious when stated this way, it takes 200 pages to state, refine and support the idea clearly. In addition to neurological and psychological evidence, he demonstrates the logical holes in some commonsense alternative views. He takes us from the mental ward to the poker table to the classroom, from the Big Bang to the Afterlife. All that breadth and rigor is important, because the argument has deep implications, which are considered in the last quarter of the book.

Some of the implications considered in this section are how to reconcile subjective degree of certainty to empiricial evidence, the extent to which subjective assignment of certainty is necessary for life to have any meaning and the necessity for respecting objectively inconsistent beliefs. There is a lot more that could be done here, he just scratches the surface of applications.

This is a breakthrough book that posits a new refinement of an idea, builds a solid support of empirical evidence and logic for it, and makes it obvious. It begins the process of exploiting the idea, and even that relatively brief beginning is exciting.
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29 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Like another reviewer, I am often amazed how people can be "certain" of a massive outcome when there is no humanly possible way they could know everything they need to know to be certain. This proves true for both those of a theistic mindset and those of an atheistic mindset. I can understand the agnostic's honesty that he simply doesn't know, but I cannot fathom the theist who says his idea of God is perfect and there's no way it is flawed or the atheist who says there is definitely no God and there's no way he's wrong. Can either side really be certain of this or are they simply trusting other people who share their primary model of thinking or that they "feel" a rapport with?

This is why, though I am a theist, my guiding principle in life is, "when I'm wrong I don't know it". This is the nature of deceit and that's what this book is all about. How do we become convinced that something is right or wrong? Is if by facts? Is it internal or external? The reality is that this books shows that mental stability can be reached in an instant, which shows that it is not particularly related to the whole of information, but maybe to a way that the information can be seen to cooperate with our worldview or the view we hope to hold.

The author helps you understand why you are certain about some things and not about others and even helps you feel certain that you can trust the information in the book, which is particularly important since the whole book is about certainty not always being accurate.

His discussions on rational thinking and objectivity have placed in words what I've been feeling for years. This very experience, which I encountered while reading the book, is itself an expression of "knowing". The modern research, the author informs us, shows that it is impossible to disengage irrelevant parts of the brain in a decision process and, therefore, decisions are always made based on both factual information and other factors (biases, emotions, etc.) that we cannot control. He then suggests the possibility of partial objectivity, which he also suggests is not itself very logical.

All-in-all, you'll like this book if you are OK with walking away and being real with yourself, because you'll have to admit you can't be arrogant in your ideas. Me, I've had teenagers to help me do that, so I had a bit of a leading advantage.
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